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Sick for the holidays? The virtual doctor will see you now

Coming down to find presents under the Christmas tree is great; coming down with an illness is not.

With many clinics closed for the holidays and folks traveling out of town, it can be a particularly inopportune time to get sick. Instead of a trip to urgent care, some of the afflicted will instead turn to a virtual medical visit.

Jenny Kemp of Hopkins, Minn., was in Missouri for a family Thanksgiving gathering when her skin started to itch. When the sensation persisted the next morning, she said it was time to get it checked out.

“I thought, well, I could go to a clinic here and they’re not going to know who I am,” Kemp said. So instead she went to the Park Nicollet clinic website and saw information for a service called Virtuwell.com.

Using her cellphone, Kemp said she initiated a virtual medical visit and submitted a few photos. She got a text message stating the information was received, then a provider responded about an hour later with advice on over-the-counter remedies and a recommendation for a follow-up with a dermatologist.

Though she is aware of the limitations of a virtual medical visit, Kemp said she was pleased with how easy the process was and how well the website worked on her phone.

There is an uptick in use of HealthPartner’s Virtuwell.com service around the holidays, especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s, care delivery supervisor Jen Schomaker said.

“We typically see an increase over the winter with a lot more of the colds and flu, and people are together and passing those germs around,” she said.

Use of telemedicine services to diagnose and treat patients is on the rise in Minnesota, according to a new study by the Minnesota Department of Health and University of Minnesota School of Public Health. The number of telemedicine visits in the state jumped from just over 11,000 in 2010 to more than 86,000 in 2015.

Health care providers around the region have a variety of online services available year-round, 24 hours a day. Many of them charge around $50 for a virtual visit.

Mayo Clinic Health System offers care for 14 common ailments such as colds, flu and sore throat through its Express Care Online website and app. The Allina Health Everyday Online service touts a treatment plan usually within an hour of filling out a patient questionnaire when submitted during business hours.

Avoiding illness

Of course it's best to avoid getting sick entirely.

"One of the biggest things is wash your hands," Schomaker said about warding off illness, as well as cleaning any surfaces that viruses and bacteria could grow on.

Other tips to avoid getting sick or sharing an illness with others this holiday season:

  • Cover coughs to prevent spreading germs
  • Stay rested and take care during times of stress
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Get a yearly flu shot
Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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